State Rep. Andy Holt and state Sen. Kerry Roberts, both Republicans, won't leave well enough alone. Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, they are convinced that Tennessee needs a law that will allow select students to voluntarily express their "religious viewpoints" in a public school setting. Their bills -- called the "Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act," -- won approval in House and Senate committee votes earlier in the week. They are now headed for floor votes in both legislative chambers. The bills should be thwarted.
The legislation would make it mandatory that school districts provide a "limited public forum" for students to voluntarily express their religious viewpoints. It also prohibits discrimination against them for doing so. The act would require school systems to devise a method, based on what are called neutral criteria, to select student speakers who will espouse religious viewpoints at a variety of school events. It also sets eligibility standards for students allowed to speak at such forums. That all might sound good to supporters of the bills, but the proposal is a perfect example of making law where none is needed.
Tennessee has sufficient laws to cover religious expression in public schools. Though there are occasional exceptions, most school districts adhere to laws passed in the 1990s that address religion and prayer. That legislation , for example, set up rules under which students can pray and have Bible clubs without intruding on the rights of others. The Holt-Roberts bill goes far beyond such accommodation.
It would allow more religious expression on public school grounds and at school-sanctioned events -- athletic events, assemblies, graduation -- than is currently permitted by state and federal law. It would allow students to pray and to proselytize in settings where students would be compelled -- by school rules and peer pressure -- to listen. Vague assurances that schools will not play an active role in promoting such activities overlook the obvious.
If a school system is required to provide the forum at which a student can speak about religion and is obligated to set up and administer the system by which those speakers are chosen, then the district is playing an active role in a religious activity. There's no need to travel that road. Some knowledgeable individuals told legislators so. Chuck Cagle, who represents school boards, said that approval of the new will create "heartburn" for school boards and communities. He's right.
There's no reason for legislators to mix religion and politics. No objective study suggests that current regulations governing expressions of faith in Tennessee schools are onerous or inequitable. Indeed, one could argue that students' growing acceptance and tolerance of other faiths and belief systems are a strong indication that current laws governing religious speech and activity in schools are sufficient.
The Holt-Roberts bills are unnecessary at best and intrusive and divisive at worst. They should be defeated in House and Senate.